The Pythian Games

The Pythian Games were the second most important Panhellenic athletic festival in Greece after the Olympic Games. According to tradition, after Apollo murdered Python, he established musical competitions to commemorate the event.

The beginning of the Games dates to the early 6th century B.C., although some celebrations must have existed before as well. Initially, the games took place near Krissa every 9 years – the same amount of time during which Apollo was absent in order to cleanse himself from the murder of the beast. Paeans were sung to the sound of a guitar in order to honour the god. The winners received a monetary prize. After the First Sacred War, the games were reconfigured according to the model of the Olympic Games and took place every 4 years, on the third year of each Olympiad, during the month of Boukation (late August) and under the supervision of the Hieromnemones.

Preparatory activities

Preparations for the games began six months earlier. Nine citizens from Delphi, called Theoroi, were sent to all Greek cities to announce the beginning of the games in order to attract athletes, as well as to declare the Hierominia, the period of the Sacred Truce. The truce aimed at protecting not only the Theoroi and the athletes who were on the move, but also the temple of Apollo at Delphi. In case a city was involved in armed conflict or in robberies during that period, it was not only forbidden to enter the Sanctuary, but none of its citizens were allowed to participate at the games or to ask the Oracle for advice. At the same time, the truce allowed the Amphictyony to focus on preparing for the games, which included restorations for all structures of the Sanctuary, from the temples to the streets and fountains.

Equestrian and athletic competitions, carried out in nude, were introduced within the context of this reform; laurel wreaths were set as prizes made from the branches of the oldest laurel in Tempi (the sacred location of Aphrodite on Pineios river) by a ‘pais amphithales’ (Plutarch, Moralia 1136α), a boy whose parents were both alive. We do not have adequate information on the games’ program and duration. Information comes mostly from Pausanias (Phocis 7) and according to that source the Pythian Games lasted for 6-8 days, beginning from 586 B.C., and they took place at various venues within the Sacred Land of Delphi, whereas later on they were carried out at the stadium, the gymnasium, the theater, the hippodrome.

The program
The first three days comprised the religious ceremonies. The fourth day began with the musical competition, which in the first year involved singing and playing the guitar, playing the flute and singing accompanied by the flute in a mourning sound. The latter musical form was abolished by the second Pythian Games, as it was considered that lamenting songs were not becoming of such a celebration. Later on, painting competitions were introduced in the 5th c. B.C., dance competitions were added in the 4th c. B.C. and theater competitions were added in the Roman period, along with an increase in the duration of the musical competition.
On the penultimate day began the athletic competition, with four track sports (stadium, diaulos, dolichos and running with arms), wrestling, pugilism, pancratium and, finally, the pentathlon. These sports were established gradually in the course of the years.
The same thing occurred with the sports of the final day, which was dedicated to equestrian races; the latter gradually came to include: harness racing, synoris (a chariot drawn by two horses), chariot drawn by four horses and racing with a horse (without a chariot).

Pindar, the poet of the games
Pindar was born in 522 or in 518 B.C. at Kynos Kefales, a quarter of Thebes. He mentions that his birth coincided with a celebration of the Pythian Games (Vita Ambrosiana, frgm. 193), but it is not certain whether this was the Pythia of 522 or of 518 B.C. We do not know the date of his death. From dating his last surviving poem, researchers have reached the conclusion that he died around 446 B.C. He concluded his poetical training in Thebes as well as in Athens. Due to his reputation, his house became a sightseeing spot in ancient Thebes and Arrian mentions that Alexander the Great, as a token of honor for the poet, excluded this house from the destruction with which he punished the entire city in 335 B.C. (Arrian, The Anabasis of Alexander 1.9.10).
Pindar worked on lyric poetry for choruses. The largest part of his surviving works is the Epinikia (‘celebrations of victory’). They are chorus songs sung in the homeland of the winner of the Games upon celebrating his success or even in the venue of the competition.
The Greek aristocracy of the first half of the 5th c. B.C., mostly the tyrants of Sicily and the conservative aristocracy of Aegina, were the main customers of the poet, as they considered him to be an exquisite panegyrist of the old threatened aristocratic values, particularly at a time of abrupt political change.
Praising the athletic success of the winner and his virtue, his family and his fortune is an occasion to celebrate aristocratic values. The winner’s laudation is reinforced by being intertwined with myth, which however challenges the understanding of the poem’s content and requires a well informed audience. The poet uses his work not only to speak of the victory won by his client and his family, but also to accentuate the family’s history and its connections all over Greece. In his Epinikia, Pindar includes sayings and aphorisms, often short and witty, interspersed in the poem as general remarks on the human existence, luck’s whims and, often, moralistic observations.
These 45 victorious hymns which have survived to this day mention the winners in the four most famous panhellenic athletic competitions and they are divided in four groups: celebrating victories in the Olympian, the Nemean, the Pythian and the Isthmian Games. The hymns celebrating victories in Pythian Games include 12 odes.

Text: Dr. Kleopatra Ferla, Historian
Translation: Dr. Aphrodite Kamara, Historian